Pianist / Composer / Conductor  Olli  Mustonen

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Born in Helsinki on 7 June 1967, Olli Mustonen took his first harpsichord lessons at the age of five and was taught to play the piano by Ralf Gothóni at the age of seven.  A year later he made his first composition attempts, and from 1975 studied composition with Einojuhani Rautavaara.  Soon, Mustonen was much sought after, both as a conductor and as a concert pianist (studies with Eero Heinonen).

Since 1989, Mustonen has been playing an active role in the musical scene of his home country; first, he became artistic director of the Korsholm Music Festival and from 1990-1992 of the Turku Music Festival as well. He is co-founder and director of the Helsinki Festival Orchestra, and since 2003 has been conducting the chamber orchestra Tapiola Sinfonietta.

As a pianist, Mustonen has given concerts with numerous major international orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orkest, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonics, and others. In addition, he maintains close working relations with renowned conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez and Christoph Eschenbach. In 1999, he performed the world première of Rodion Shchedrin’s Piano Concerto No. 5, which is dedicated to him, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.  [See photo below.]  For his recording of 24 Preludes and Fugues by Dmitri Shostakovich and 25 Preludes by Charles-Valentin Alkan, Mustonen received both the Edison Award and the Gramophone Award in 1992.


Mustonen’s predilection for contrapuntally interwoven compositions and works of the 20th century which take up ideas from the 17th and 18th centuries (e.g. the Bach arrangements by Ferruccio Busoni and the cycles of preludes and fugues by Paul Hindemith or Shostakovich), is reflected in his own works as well. The concentration on instrumentation and rhythm as well as the use of genre names such as Gavotte, Toccata or Petite Suite are points in favour of this affinity. Mustonen's works attain their individuality through their fresh tonal language rooted in the sonority of the music of his come country.

While it is the pianist who is to the fore in the concert halls throughout the world, it is the conducting and composing activities of Mustonen from Hausjärvi (Finland) which are becoming of growing interest to the public. As both, a composer and an interpreter, he is "artist in residence" at the Usedom Music Festival in October 2005.

--  Biography (text only) from the Schott Music website 
--  Links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my websites.  BD 

It is interesting to follow the careers of artists, and particularly in my case, those with whom I have shared a conversation or two.  This is especially fascinating when the meeting takes place very early in the musician
’s career.

I met Olli Mustonen in May of 1991, when he was about to turn 24 years old.  Already a seasoned performer and a recognized composer, and the years that followed have only increased his stature in both areas.

He came to Chicago in several seasons for both solo recitals and concerto appearances with the Chicago Symphony. 

Here is that very early interview . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Are you a composer who plays piano, or a pianist who composes?

Olli Mustonen:    Well, I think I’m both.  It’s very difficult to say.  Both are as important for me.

BD:    Then how do you juggle both activities?

OM:    Have you seen the film The Great Dictator?  I remember what impressed me a lot was how this dictator planned his time so carefully that he had this kind of minute schedule.  When he was waiting for somebody, he went for two minutes to be as a model for a sculpture; then he played the piano for fifteen seconds.  Unfortunately I’m not that efficient.  I’m a little bit more mortal than these dictators, so I really have to concentrate on one thing at one time.  Actually, this year I’m trying this new kind of system where I have something like one-month periods when I don’t travel, because composing takes a lot of time for me. 

BD:    Do you ever wish, though, that you could call upon the muse in ten-second or two-minute intervals?

OM:    [Laughs]  Well, sometimes.  When I compose something, it’s so intense, somehow, I never get rid of it.  It follows me everywhere.  Somehow, however strained is playing these performances, it still is that you have played a concert.  Afterward it’s very difficult to sleep, and it’s kind of you live in the echoes of a concert.  But still, you’ve played it and it’s over.  But with composing, it follows you everywhere and you never get rid of it.  I’m sure anybody who does any sort of creative work has the same thing.  Sometimes it’s difficult to live when all these ideas haunt you everywhere.  So it’s a very intense experience, all this composition.  Even when you finish the work, it takes a time before you somehow grow apart from it.

BD:    When you’re playing one of the masterworks of the keyboard literature, do you feel you’re a better interpreter of that literature because you are also an active composer?

OM:    It’s dangerous to use the word “better,” of course, but hopefully it gives me a little bit a different angle where I can move this music.  There can be many ways of achieving it, but at least in my case, I think it helps that I look at the music both as a pianist and also as a composer.  It gives me maybe two different angles from which I see the music, and like with two eyes, you see more dimensions to a thing than with one eye.  What I would think is worrying is sometimes for musicians who only play an instrument — I don’t mean the great ones — that there is a danger of being too much of a kind of thinking.  For example, for a pianist to think about the music as a series of pressing down and lifting up black and white keys.  When I work on a piece, very often I try to have a direct contact with the music, not only through the piano but also just singing the music and looking and analyzing it.

BD:    Does being a composer help you evaluate which pieces you will select to perform?

OM:    Actually, for us pianists, we are in such an unbelievably fortunate position.  There are so many masterworks to play, and an endless amount of interesting and wonderful music.  So I don’t think it matters so much in which order you play.  Whatever you play, there’s always more wonderful things to discover.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You mean you want to play everything???

mustonen OM:    [With a big smile]  Well, if I live for five hundred years.. which is, of course, what I’m trying to.  [Both laugh]  Really it is impossible to play everything, but most definitely it certainly is one of the principles of my ideology about music is that I’m not that interested in when or where the music was written.  Of course those are interesting things, but only in a secondary sense of the word.  For me, the most essential things in music are these timeless elements, these abstract elements, these elements where you can find connections between Beethoven and Sibelius, or Bach and Schubert, or whatever.  I really couldn’t think of just specializing in one period, or, let’s say, just playing Belgian composers of the beginning of nineteenth century.  Maybe it suits somebody, but for me it really is not so interesting when and where the music was written.  It is interesting what it is.

BD:    You find the connection between the early masters and the more recent masters.  Is there a connection between any of these and your own music?

OM:    [Laughs]  Well, definitely I’m the first one to say that I am influenced by everything I have heard since I was born
every single noise, a door making a noise, or cars’ noise, or music.  I was influenced positively or negatively, and I’m sure that all of it affects me.  I definitely don’t think a composer should be only influenced by music that has been written during his lifetime, for example, because really, all the music is from the past, whether it’s two days old or two hundred years old.  I really think it’s not important.  What is important is that some music doesn’t live, and some music does.  For example, if you want to think of Mozart, when he wrote his music, he didn’t think he was writing Viennese Classical Music.  If he got a wonderful idea, he didn’t think, I should write this because I’m living now in this and this century and I’m writing this kind of style.  All of these stylistic things were the composers aesthetic at the time they lived.  It’s easy to see afterwards those stylistic things, but what is important is that Mozart wrote contemporary music of his time, and for him this music was contemporary music and not a product of a certain period.  I don’t think there is a period that produces geniuses like Mozart automatically.  These people were such exceptions, and they were as difficult to understand for their contemporaries as they are for us.  In some ways these geniuses have more in common with each other than with their contemporaries very often.

BD:    So then you’re not a product of your own time, you’re a product of all time?

OM:    [Laughs]  Well, I didn’t say I’m a genius.

BD:    But with whatever music you write.

OM:    As I said, I’m influenced definitely by everything I have heard since I was born.  It doesn’t mean that I’m only influenced by the music that was written during my lifetime.

BD:    You used two words in the same context, but with a definite barrier between them
noise and music.  Where does noise become music?

OM:    That is a very difficult question to answer, and it depends so much on the listener.  I definitely consider some things as being music and some things as being noise.  Really, in a way, I sometimes prefer noise to music.  If there’s a very boring piece of music, I might not be that interested in it.  But if I just listen to traffic noise, for example, that can have amazing things developing.  If you think of traffic noise at, let’s say, ten o’clock in the morning or two o’clock at night, it’s completely different, and it can be much more fascinating than boring music, for example.

BD:    [Laughs]  So you’ve become an expert in types of traffic noise around the world?

OM:    Exactly!  If you have a tape of fifteen minutes of traffic noise and you listen to that every morning for a year, then don’t listen to it for a year and then you listen to it once again, I’m sure you’re quite interested to hear the tape, although to us it makes no sense musically.  But definitely, since it’s something you know, I’m sure it would be a fascinating experience.  [Laughs]  It’s kind of dangerous to even think about these things because I hear myself almost saying that one didn’t even have to compose.  One just could tape the traffic noise.

BD:    Do you synthesize all of the sounds that you have in your mind, and just put them where they belong on the page?

mustonen OM:    It’s very difficult to explain in accurate terms.  It’s very difficult to explain how these things happens.  I don’t want to sound mystical or somehow weird, but the best moments in composing
— and for playing, too, since in this sense they are very similarare not when I feel something and write my own experiences down on paper.  I really don’t feel that.  It’s more like a feeling of becoming a channel for something, receiving something and transmitting it.  This doesn’t mean that one just should sit down and wait for this so-called inspiration to come.  The best weapon to get this inspiration is to work.  It seems that there are three segments.  First of all, the material, the ideas.  You very often take them on through intuition.  You can’t explain those things.  You get an idea and then you work on it in a very intellectual way.  You try to use the brain to construct a piece.  But then there is still the third stage, which is very important, and that is the test of whether a composition works or not.  Again, it has to be done in this way of intuition.  It can happen that you’ve worked it out very, very cleverly as a composition, and it really should work in whatever way you think about it.  Sometimes it works, but then if you don’t feel it works, it’s no good.  Then it doesn’t work.  The final judgment for a composer should always be his own ears and his own mind.

BD:    Not the reaction of the public?

OM:    Or how much money you get.  [Both laugh]  I always think how nice it would be to say that one writes these things, or plays for reasons of giving things to other people, and definitely that is an important part of it.  I would be dishonest if I said that was the reason why I do it.  I can’t even say it’s a selfish reason.  It’s just that I have no choice.  This is what I have to do.  There is an inner force that forces me to do these things.  If people like to listen to the terrible results, I’m glad if they have such bad taste.  [Laughs]  This is very good for me, and I don’t complain if some people like the results.  But whether they like it or not, it is something I have to do.

BD:    When you get a commission, how do you decide if you will accept the commission or turn it aside?

OM:    I would say most of my compositions actually have been commissioned, and I find it very fascinating because I hate it, really, when people have commissioned works for me.  I always am sure that this is going to be the last time I ever say that I’ll write something for somebody.  I always think I’ll go crazy.  But it creates a certain idea.  When you have this date in your diary, you know that this work is going to be performed.  Maybe you even know who is going to perform it, and where.  It’s a wonderful pressure.  It’s a wonderful inspiration.  Everybody is different, but for me it is a very useful thing.

BD:    Do you ever write just for you?

OM:    [Laughs]

BD:    I mean, for your own performance?

OM:    The problem is that I’m not that keen on writing for the piano.  I don’t know why.  [Laughs]  I find it kind of a boring instrument!

BD:    Maybe because you spend so much time with it?

OM:    I suppose, yes.  I love the piano, of course, but still, it’s definitely not so that my ideas as a composer are somehow pianistic; not at all.  I’m very often composing kind of an abstract way.

BD:    Maybe you find writing for strings or winds or percussion refreshing.

OM:    Definitely yes.  Maybe it’s the fact that I can’t play those instruments that makes me want to torture those people.  [Laughs]

BD:    You must understand them, though?

OM:    I hope so, but sometimes one can be very inspired by certain instruments, certain sounds, and sometimes music is just kind of abstract and needs to be played on some instrument.  But one should try to be inspired by those instruments, not restricted by them.  However, the restriction can be very inspiring, too.  I find this is very often a problem with some people writing music on synthesizers and electronic instruments, because it can be a problem for some composers that there are no restrictions.  Whatever you think of, it’s always possible to do and for some, I would think this creates a problem of not having an outer discipline.  So then to write for synthesizers and this kind of electronic music, the composer really needs a lot of discipline to be able to produce something that works as a composition.  This choice, this endless amount of possibilities, can be very difficult.

BD:    Do you choose the possibilities, or are the possibilities chosen for you?

OM:    Well...  [Ponders a moment]

BD:    Let me reset this.  When you write something out, are you controlling where it’s going, or does it kind of lead you along?

OM:    From what I said earlier about these three stages, it depends which stage is going on.  The first stage is when I get these ideas, and then nobody knows what is going on.  The second stage is this very logical, intellectual stage, and then, certainly, I know what is going on.  But somehow in the best moments of composing there is a feeling that the work is somehow creating itself.  A very good way to explain this is to think of a gardener.  The composition is like this plant, and of course, the gardener can help the plant by giving it water and cutting it, and all those possible things, but then also the gardener can destroy the plant if he doesn’t have the right technique.  This is exactly how a composition is for me.  It is possible if I’m clumsy I will kill the result, or it can happen that I can greatly help the plant to grow.  But whatever the end the result is, somehow it’s not from me.  I, of course, spend a lot of time with it, but I still consider that after I’ve finished these works they don’t belong to me.

BD:    Let me say that you seem to have quite an interesting garden growing.

OM:    [Laughs]  Right.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about performing.  When you come to a new city, you’re confronted with a new instrument.  How long does it take you before you understand that instrument under your fingers?

OM:    This is much of a question of attitude.  For a person in my profession, it would be very dangerous to have this attitude that there’s one ideal instrument, and then comparing all the other instruments to it.  If you have one ideal instrument, everything that is different is not as good, and worse.  That means that you will be disappointed most of the time unless you play on that ideal instrument.  So one should have the attitude of trying to be inspired by these different instruments, and trying to find out what kind of treatment it needs to create the sounds you want to get.  One just has to listen and be very open to these experiences.  Very often it happens that I just come to a place the same day I perform, and hardly can play the instrument at all.  Fortunately, all around the world the pianos tend to have black and white keys, which is helpful!  So I just try to live with it.  Sometimes it can be a wonderful experience and can be so inspiring playing with a new instrument; sometimes not.  [Laughs]


BD:    Do you adjust your technique at all for the size of the hall, whether you’re playing in a small intimate room or a very large arena?

OM:    Not really.  [Laughs]  I must say I’m such a selfish person that I don’t care whether the other people hear or not.  Really though, it’s not only a question of the size of the hall, it’s much more the question of the type of sound and the type of instrument.  When you are on the stage, it’s very difficult to say what is because of the hall and what is because of the instrument.  Of course I’m fussy about instruments, but I’m actually even more fussy about piano chairs.  It is very important what kind of piano stool I have.  In some places the piano stools are very soft, and this really destroys my playing because I find it is very important to get the right kind of support from the piano stool.  I know this sounds really weird, and I shouldn’t be telling you this, because you think I’m completely crazy, but it’s really true.

BD:    Not at all!  I would think the support for the back and the shoulders from the stool would be important.

mustonen OM:    Well, yes.  It all has to do with the sound somehow.  When I play, it’s not just the fingers that play.  It’s really all of me that is there, and it has to do with the balance and everything.  So if I have a stool that gives in when you try to lean on it, it can be very difficult.  Of course one tries to get used to that, too, but that’s the thing I’m most difficult about, actually.  This gets into very boring, technical details, but also the height of the stool is very important.  I tend to use different heights for different music.  When I play Bach, for example, I tend to use quite low height, and then I go a little bit higher if I play something like Rachmaninoff.

BD:    Is it that you need more downward strength for the louder passages in Rachmaninoff?

OM:    It’s difficult to analyze.  Again, it depends so much on the piano, but yes, definitely, if there’s music with a lot of big chords and you need this kind of sound, it’s not so much a question of volume, but you need the sound that is somehow naturally big and which is not forced.  You shouldn’t do it only with strength.  You should use the weight of your body.  This is more natural, and in a way, easier to do if you are sitting higher.  You can do it also if you are sitting lower, but it depends on the music very much.

BD:    Singers often tell me that they feel like they have to be in training all the time
like athletes, because their instrument is their body.  Are you in training like an athlete, in a way?

OM:    I suppose this has something to do with being from a country where there is a lot of free nature.  It’s very important to me to be in contact with the nature, and be outside and swim and do things like that; so in that sense, yes.  When we were talking before about Bach and Rachmaninoff,
I definitely don’t mean that one should have a different approach to them.  These two composers have actually much more in common than is thought very often.  The polyphonic thinking in Rachmaninoff is very often neglected completely.

BD:    So do you try to bring that out, then?

OM:    If you listen to his own playing, that’s definitely what he does.  Talking about Rachmaninoff, it’s interesting...  I didn’t even like his music very much before I heard him playing it himself on the record.  I had completely the wrong impression of his music.  I had hardly ever heard anything properly.  I just had this impression that this is entertainment music, something played in bars.  This is completely stupid of me, of course, but I had probably heard performances that didn’t do justice to the music.  When I heard him playing on those records, it opened a completely different world for me.  I realized, of course, this is how it should be.  This is how this music should be played.

BD:    Is there a balance between an entertainment value and an artistic achievement?

OM:    Definitely these two can be combined, and they are combined.  Of course it’s possible, especially with some music to be wonderful music but it is not entertaining.  Sometimes music can be just so depressing in some ways.

BD:    Purposely so?

OM:    Yes, exactly.  So that’s definitely possible.  And some music can be very entertaining, without maybe being so great in some ways.  But actually I do think if some music is really entertaining, it is also definitely great.  So often when you are gloomy and depressive making music, it’s so easy to pretend to be profound and pretend to be deep.  But if you think about it, much of Mozart’s music, his most profound music is not depressing at all; the same for Bach.  Then some great music can be depressing, but maybe not so much in this country.  But especially where I’m from in Finland, people tend to have this attitude that if music is very tragic, then only can it be great.  If music is happy somehow, it definitely is not so great, and this is, I think, completely wrong.  Anybody can be just depressing and tragic, and being completely empty at the same time, but they pretend to be profound.  All these feelings, whether it is something that is very happy or something very depressing, can be great or not great.  It’s a question of the quality of the feeling.

BD:    We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the question straight out.  What is the purpose of music?

OM:    [Laughs]  That is, of course, a difficult question.  One of the wonderful things about music is that you can get so many things out of it in so many different ways.  Different people can get things from it on different levels because people who are in no way familiar with the theory of music or the other kind of intellectual side of it can still get so much out of it.  Of course, the more you know about something, the more possibilities it gives you.  It gives you more possibilities to get these experiences, and one should certainly be encouraged to always look further and deeper into the music.  But even if you don’t, you can still enjoy it, at least.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve made some recordings.  Do you play the same for the microphone as you do in the concert hall for the public?

mustonen OM:    Oh, yes, definitely.  Again, every instrument and every hall is completely different, and of course every day I’m a day older.  [Laughs]

BD:    So you can project an imaginary audience into the empty studio?

OM:    I was talking about composing before, but it’s the same thing with playing.  In the best moments, I feel that I’m saying something to the public, or making a statement of my feelings, or something like that.  I really think the best moments are when something is going through me, somehow, and this is the state I try to achieve every time.  It can inspire you if there’s an audience, but playing for one person or playing for ten thousand people, or just playing for yourself, the music is the same and the keys are in the same order.  It doesn’t matter so much.

BD:    Is playing piano fun?

OM:    It can be, yes.  I’m ashamed to admit, it can be.  [Laughs]

BD:    [Surprised]  Why are you ashamed???

OM:    Because I’m paid for it.  [Laughs]  One shouldn’t enjoy what one is doing for a living, I suppose.

BD:    [Protesting]  I do! 

OM:    Well, you should be quiet, then!  [Both laugh]  No, I’m ashamed I’m such a fortunate person.  There are many people like that, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m really grateful for the fact that as my profession I can do something that I would want to do anyway.  Again, it’s not really not even a question of wanting to do something.  I definitely want to compose and play the piano, but it’s not even a question of that.  It’s really that there is an inner force that forces me to do it.  There’s no choice it gives me.  I really have to do this.

BD:    You’re still very young; you’re not yet twenty-five.  Are you on the career path the way you want to go, or are you still making adjustments?

OM:    I think every day one should be prepared as oneself if things going the way they should be going, and is there a way of making the life more balanced or more inspiring in some ways.  I mentioned earlier that I now have a new system of having approximately three one-month breaks without traveling.  That is a step towards something.  At the moment I can’t imagine definitely leaving either composing or playing.  They’re both as important for me and I definitely will do both of them always.  But I can imagine maybe at some point doing fewer concerts.  It doesn’t mean that it would be at all less important for me; it just means that I won’t have to spend so much time in airplanes and airports and hotels.  With composing I really need lots of time, and really one has to arrange all these conditions as well as one can.  But of course there are situations when I am touring a lot, I feel there’s not enough time for composing, or if I’m composing it might feel like I would like to play more.  But at the moment I just have to compose.  So these are the kind of situation one faces.  But still, the advantages of doing both are greater than the disadvantages.  And again, it’s not only a question of that.  I just have no choice.  I really have to do these things.

BD:    When you’re organizing a solo recital, do you try to always include a piece of your own on the program?

OM:    No, but if it somehow suits the program, maybe then.  I do it actually quite rarely.  Maybe it’s a question of certain shyness because I really don’t want to seem as a pushy composer who wants to force people to listen to his works.  I definitely don’t want to force anybody to listen to my works.

BD:    But you do hope they enjoy them?

OM:    [Laughs]  Well, yes, of course.  That would be very nice.

BD:    Will you be back in Chicago again?

mustonen OM:    I hope so.  I’m not quite sure at the moment what the schedule is, but I think there are some plans, yes.  It’s very nice for me; such a wonderful hall.  It’s fantastic.  I’m really looking forward to working with the orchestra.  It’s such a pleasure for me.

BD:    Do you still make your home in Finland, or are you gone a lot of the time?

OM:    My official home is in Helsinki, Finland, yes.  My wife is Finnish, too, and I realized that if we didn’t live there I would not be there very much.  Most of my work is away from Finland, so I try to go there as often as possible.  Now, with this month period for composing, it gives me the possibilities to be there.  Both my parents and my wife’s parents have summer cottages.  My wife’s family has one beside the sea, and my parents beside a lake.  So it’s really fantastic.

BD:    And here in Chicago you’re beside a Great Lake!

OM:    That’s true!  A lot of Finnish people actually moved to this region — especially a little bit more north, but in the Great Lakes area.  There is something in the scenery that reminds us of home.  There’s a need to be near water, I think.  For me, there are two things that are most important for me in Finland, besides my friends and family, I mean.  Nature is one thing, and the language is another.  That is a very special thing.  There are only five million people who speak this strange language.  However well you can speak another language, there’s a danger of losing something.

BD:    And it doesn’t relate to any other language either.

OM:    That’s true... well, to Estonian and Hungarian.   Estonian is quite close, actually, but Hungarian is very distant, even though it belongs to the same language group.  There is a story, actually, where the Finns and the Hungarians came together from the east, somewhere behind the Ural River.  There was this sign that said “to Hungary,” and those who could read went to Hungary and those who couldn’t ended up in Finland.  So that’s how we got selected.  [Laughter]  But it’s not an Indo-European language, so it’s very different.  Even Russian and English have more in common than Finnish and Russian, or Finnish and English. 

BD:    Thank you for sharing your artistry all over the world.

OM:    Thank you very much.

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© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on May 14, 1991.  Portions were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1992 and 1997, and on WNUR in 2003 and 2010.  The transcript was made and posted on this website early in 2014.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.